Courtney Weaver is joined by Nathan Harlan, the Executive Director for the Office of Student Wellness, to chat about resilience – what it is, what it isn’t, and what folks can do to help build it!


All right, everyone. Welcome to wellbeing Wednesdays. I'm your host Courtney Weaver. I'm the director over a WellWVU here at West Virginia university. And my guest today is Nathan Harlan. He is the executive director for the Office of Student Wellness, also known as my boss. So we'll be on my best behavior today.

Um. Once again, we are doing this over zoom because we are being responsible citizens and practicing appropriate social distancing procedures and working from our homes. Uh, so Nathan, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role here at the university? Oh, thanks Courtney. Appreciate it.

And, um, you know, I'd like to see your version of on your best behavior. That'd be, that'd be great. So, um, I have the pleasure of working with, uh, a bunch of different units that will all contribute to a student wellness in some way. And so that includes, of course, world WVU and their great work, um, collegiate recovery, which is a, a program that works with students and alcohol, drug and, uh, other forms of recovery.

Um, uh, adventure West Virginia, which is a program that does all the wonderful outdoor education and development work. Um, and, um, you know, those, those kinds of groups together are the Office of Student Wellness. And so another part of my job is just working with student life more broadly and helping connect the dots, which is how I often try to describe my job is really just connecting people and ideas and concepts to, to help better the wellbeing outcomes for our student community.

Great. It sounds like important work. All right. Uh, so the topic that we're going to talk about today is what's called resilience. And I think if you're listening to this podcast, perhaps you've heard this term before, um, and it's kind of been a buzz word that's been floating around mental health circles of late, and it's, it's gained more Providence, particularly during this time of the pandemic.

Um, Oh shoot. My phone just rang. This is what happens when you record on a computer. Uh, anyway, so, Nathan, could you, uh, give us a basic definition of what resilience is. Yeah. And Courtney, thanks for that preface. Cause it is, it's important to note that it's, you know, like so many terms, sometimes these terms get thrown around in some ways that are, are accurate and sometimes not so accurate.

And so it's also, you know, like, uh, like a lot of emerging, um, kind of theoretical concept that there's, there's a bunch of different researchers and theorists looking at it in different ways. So the way that we're gonna look at it is through to the American, uh, um, psychologist's association. APA. And they're going to take a stance and say it's, it's, um, that, that resilience is, is basically defined as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, uh, significant sources of stress.

Um, so. So things like, um, family or relationship problems, uh, health, like physical health, setbacks, um, workplace or financial stress. Um, and, you know, did we just think about this moment we're in those things essentially all might be true in the middle of this pandemic. And so, um, our ability to be resilient or, or essentially to adapt in the face of those challenges is what resilience is all about.

So really it's about bouncing back from difficult experiences. Yeah. That's a great way to sum it up. And we think about this in, in sort of the way we think about building muscle. So if, if you've ever intentionally sort of, um, gone through an exercise program where your goal was to build muscle, you know that you've got to, you've got to exercise that and effectively that means that there's some hurt in that process, right?

It's uncomfortable when we start a new exercise routine because it's unusual and it's, it's uncomfortable. It's also in effect, kind of stressing us, stressing our muscles. But. Our body responds by building more muscle mass or building strength. And that's essentially how we look at resilience. It's, it's approaching all of these setbacks that life throws us in a way that will build us up as opposed to tear us down.

Great. Um, so let's talk for a minute about what resilient resiliency isn't. So if someone has a resilient person, does that mean they never faced distress or trauma in their lives? Yeah. So that's a great question. And it's back to that idea that it's sort of a, you know, sometimes people throw the term resilience around in a way that it's, it's probably not accurate.

And so when we say, you know, OB resilient, or, you know, resilience is gonna make you happier, it's really important to note that, that people who are resilient aren't that way because they, they, they've never encountered these difficulties. And it's certainly not some sort of magic bullet or passport to, to not having hard moments in your life or experiencing these things.

Um, you know, the, some of the people who are, you know, frankly, the most resilient people I know have gone through immense tragedy or trauma or suffering or difficulty earlier today, I got to attend the graduation ceremony for our students who are in recovery. Um, and it was, it was just wonderfully, um, you know, and really frankly, quite emotional to hear them talk about how for many of them, they never thought they would make it through college because of the challenges they've faced.

And, and, um, you know, those folks are just a, you know, in my mind, a real great example of, of resilience because they've been through so much and yet they've, they've been able to reset and reframe and come out the other side of that, um, in ways that are very positive for them. And is resiliency is something that only certain people can possess.

Yeah. So again, this is where it's really fascinating. You know, if this were just something that some people had and some people didn't, I don't think it'd be worth the airwaves of this podcast because it'd be like the haves and have nots. Right? So unlike a personality trait or other fixed kind of traits, we actually have the ability to affect our level of resilience.

Um, and so a number of studies have borne this out that. There are things we can do. There's a framework, a, an approach we can take for life that will either increase or the opposite that would be, make us less likely to, to kind of have a resilient approach to life and, and, and navigate through these stressful experiences.

So to me, that's really good news and it's worth the attention that, that, you know, that, that, uh, the subject gardeners, because the things that we can control my, for frankly, the things we should spend our time on not stressing over the things we can't control. Very good point. And so moving along on this concept of resilience, there's actually four core components that folks can actively work on to help build it.

And so the American psychological association as the four components as building connections, fostering wellbeing, finding purpose, and then embracing healthy thoughts. So let's talk about each of those individually. So when they talk about build your connections, what does that mean. So, yeah, that's great.

And, and I think this is the one that, um, you know, that maybe people, uh, feel, uh, depending on where you're coming from, either the best about or the worst about. But I think that the connections we have in life are effectively our community. Our is just, it's just one of the most profound things that will affect us.

So if you, if you're a college student, if you, um, have come to WVU, uh, you probably know the feeling, the uneasy feeling of starting over. Even if you came here with a bunch of your high school peers, the reality is this is a different social environment. And so you've probably experienced the, um, uneasiness of, of not having, uh, having your connections be up in air.

Um, and so often what we see as students who aren't able to persist at them view who don't, who don't end up staying at the review. A lot of times it's because they just really didn't, weren't able to build the connections. So what that, what that looks like is, first of all, you know, if you want to positively affect this area, just prioritize your relationships.

And that doesn't necessarily mean you know, uh, you know, just to be a doormat for all your friends really. In some cases what it might mean is look at your relationships and if there's some really unhealthy ones. It might need, need to rethink that again, back to that, uh, the graduation ceremony today with our recovery students, one of the students made the comment that college has been really hard since she came back, um, because as a person to recovery, she had to really, um, kind of check out of a lot of unhealthy relationships or rather relationships with people that were unhealthy, that were tending to pull her back into her addiction paths.

And so, um, so that's part of, you know, part of focusing on relationships. But the other part is really. You know, a relationship is something that needs fed and it needs to be, um, it needs to be the focus of your time and your attention and your care. And they, the, the return on investment for those relationships is just immense because that's the, that's the place you're going to turn to for support.

When things do get tough, it's the people you can safely talk through ideas or concepts that feel risky to even voice. Um, and it's a group of people that are going to give you feedback when you're sort of off center, when you're not heading in the direction that you've stated you want to go. So the ways to do that, if you think about the opportunities that present themselves to you as a college student, um, WVU puts immense amount of effort into creating small communities and groups, whether that be a residence hall floor or groups of people.

And this is my favorite groups of people who want to give back. So, you know, Courtney works with groups of students who want to be, well, uh, you know, our student wellness ambassador team and, and so what a tight community of people who actually spend their time trying to help others be well. And so that's just, for example, a great idea.

But you know, clubs organized around your, um, your interests for sports or for, or for parts of, um, you know, academia like literature or all kinds of things, if you, you name it, WVU probably has an, uh, a group or a club around it. Yeah, and I think this is one of the areas where people often overlook the importance of campus recreation because it's actually a really key component for belongingness on campus to all those intermural sports, um, opportunities and sport clubs.

And even just the employment opportunities to, uh, makes help students feel connected to campus. And that's. Peter attention, which we care about. And then along those same lines, let's talk about fostering wellbeing. What are some of the things that people are, strategies that people can use to help that component of resilience?

Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, we've got to think about the sake. We're whole people, right? So if we neglect part of our wellbeing to focus on another area. Um, you know, we're, we're ultimately gonna gonna come up short and at the end. So we need to really think about taking care of ourselves, like in the, in the fullest, broadest sense.

So, you know, we need to think about taking care of our bodies, um, being conscious and thoughtful about what we put into our bodies in terms of what we eat, how we move our bodies. Um, and then, um. You know, also how we, um, you know, I tend to art to, you know, to our medical needs to, as college student, you know, we're, we're sometimes away from our families for the first time.

It can be easy to kind of just neglect, um, you know, attending to, to, you know, routine doctor's visits and all those kinds of health needs. Um, but, but our bodies aren't, our physical bodies aren't the only part of this. Right. And so, you know, we've got, uh, we've, we've, we've got hopefully active intellectual, um, kind of, uh, elements of who we are.

And you can feed that. Um, we need to practice mindfulness, which is just, just this great array of opportunities to be very conscious and thoughtful about, um, about how we think and how we act and what we spend our time doing. And I'm sure this is the case for everybody, but it was very easy to fill every waking moment of your day with stuff.

Not all that stuff is good for us. You know, screen time is good in balance, but too much is a bad thing. But frankly, even just continually being around those great relationships. Can Rob us of the opportunity to be thoughtful and to spend time by ourselves and to be reflective. Um, and then, you know, we need to be conscious a little bit about the idea of, of some of the negative outlets.

Um, you know, so, so we all encounter stress. How we deal with that stress is really predictive of, of kind of how resilient we can be. So, um, you know, uh, if we, if we bottle up stress to the point where it overwhelms us and we feel paralyzed and just can't function. Is obviously a lot less productive them then dealing with it in small stages.

Again, going back to our community, talking through it, seeking the help of a counselor at the Cru center, um, early instead of when things have reached the point of crisis. Um, and, um, you know, and just really being attentive rather than, than kind of ignoring the problem that might be growing in the corner of your, of your physical or personal wellbeing.

All right. Uh, and so for the third component, it's finding purpose. So whereas fostering wellbeing often involved a lot of those interpersonal aspects. Uh, let's talk a little bit about finding purpose, which is, um, maybe helping others or help. It's maybe some more external factors are in play there. Yeah, that's right.

And so, you know, it turns out that if we only focus on sort of the most narrow version of ourselves, it actually doesn't, doesn't bode well for our chance to ride through the difficulties that life throws at us when we're anchored by something that's outside of our media itself. Like so, so think about, you know, being part of something bigger.

So that's it. That's why I mentioned the SWAT team, the student wellness ambassador team. If you're part of something that is working toward the greater good of campus or the wellbeing, um, that's sometimes is that really important anchor that's outside of the immediate fluctuations of how you're feeling today and oriented towards something bigger and it gets you through some difficult times.

Um, helping others comes in all shapes and forms, right? So the, the, the center for service and learning, um, has numerous opportunities to give back to our local community to serve in broader ways. But sometimes it's just honestly thinking of others and reaching out. I've been so appreciative over the last month as we're kind of in these weird situations where we're sticking at home, that, um, that family and friends have just dropped me a line and said, how are you doing?

You know, what's, what's life like for you right now? And, and I've, I've found myself saying I need to do that more because that gets me out of my own little bubble and makes me think about other people. And sometimes what that means is simply the world looks less scary when you realize we're all in this together.

But you know, another way to say that is, you know, we, if we have big picture goals and if those goals aren't just totally, you know, self-focused, like, I want to make a bunch of money, or I want these things in my life. If it's more about these broader goals, like I want to graduate and get a degree so I can make a difference in the world and here's how I want that to look, those goals actually really kind of orient us and get us through the moment of difficulty.

It's like a light at the end of the tunnel kind of perspective. And I think one of the benefits of coming to a college campus is that there are a lot of opportunities for folks to do these journeys of self discovery. And maybe you really have always enjoyed poetry, but, uh, you know, the opportunity wasn't there at your previous high school to explore that.

But here at WVU you can join the poetry club and talk to like minded people. Um, and so purpose can look like a lot of different things. That's really great. And then finally, our last component is embracing healthy thoughts. So can you talk a little bit about what that means? Yeah, this is, this is so key.

So, you know, it's a given. We're all gonna run into difficult experiences. Again, like we talked about before, that could be something that's broad and sweeping as a pandemic. We're facing. Where something is narrow is a really bad test grade when you thought you were going to do better. So we, we can't, and we don't want to kind of create a situation where we vilified our own emotions.

We need to encounter emotions and just let, let us, let ourselves give ourselves room to experience life. But it's sort of like, uh, it's, it's kind of the perspective that we hold it, uh, with those emotions that we do have control over. So again, I can be really upset. I bombed the test. So I needed to take a deep breath and realize that it's one test amongst many and my whole college career.

It's not the end of the world, you know? And, and, uh, even if it is a really big setback in the grand scheme, you know, sweeping scheme of your life, it may actually turn out to be a catalyst for positive. And so I think keeping things in perspective is a huge part of that. I think we kind of alluded to this earlier, but you know, there are a lot of things in life we can't change.

So, um, we recognize that change is one of those things change, change. It makes us uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. So we have to accept change when it comes, because frankly, you don't have any other choice. The harder you kick against things, you can't change, the more you stress yourself out and feel few tile and, and, and, uh, and not in control.

Right? So roll with the things you can't change. Um, and uh, and again, just focus on the things you can affect, which is your perspective and your viewpoint. And, you know, there's a lot to be said for kind of keeping a hopeful outlook. So, you know, you want to be that glass half full person where you can, now that's not to say you want to wear Rose colored lenses on everything, but you know, a little bit of optimism, um, kind of in, in a, in a belief that, you know, just like that physical exercise building muscles, you know, that reframe of, wow, this is really rough, but I've got, this is going to yield good things down the line for me when I get through it is it is a pretty important aspect to maintain.

And essentially that just means you're, you're learning from your past. So the more you recognize a track record of using setbacks to form personal growth, the more you'll be able to look at setbacks as an opportunity for growth, right? So that about sums up those four main components. And so for our wellbeing snapshot for this episode, let's talk about what resilience looks like during this pandemic.

So Nathan, in your opinion. What does it look like? Yeah. You know, it's, it's hard because a lot of the things that I would, I would just really encourage you to be involved in on campus right now are, are not at your fingertips. You know, those clubs, they might still be meeting. Um, and, um, and, and I encourage you to take advantage of them, but let's be honest, you know, one more zoom call might not be like the best thing for you if you spent all day in front of the zoom screen.

So I think it's a lot of it's about, you know, kind of attaching yourself to these sort of four components. Um.

And finding out the best way you can maintain them through this kind of scenario where we're all stuck in our homes and houses. I think they're all there. I think they can be done, but we've just got to get creative about how to do them. And also just kind of also hope for hope for the time when we get back together in person and you can build those relationships in person, you can have these experiences in the flesh.

All right. Well that's great advice. Um, so that about wraps it up for us. So thank you so much, Nathan, for taking the time out of your day to, to chat with us. I say us like it's multiple people. It's just for, for talking with us. I would really appreciate it. Um, and from our listeners, we will catch you next time on Wellbeing Wednesdays.